The Hawks had done it again.
Hillgrove held Camden County scoreless over the final three quarters — outscoring the Wildcats 27-0 during that span — and claimed a 34-21 victory in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs.
The victory moved the Hawks (11-1) into the quarterfinals for the second time in four years. They will host North Gwinnett (11-1) next week.
“This is a really big win for us,” said quarterback Elijah Ironside, who was 13-of-20 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. “We didn’t want this to be our last week. We’ve played Camden County in the playoffs three times in the last four years, and we didn’t expect this to become a rivalry, but it looks like it is. To win here again is just amazing.”
The last time Hillgrove beat Camden County was a 28-26 win in the second round of the 2010 playoffs — also in Kingsland, and also with the Wildcats having ended the regular season as the state’s top-ranked team.
“Camden County is a good matchup for us,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “We know the drill when we come down here. The kids have beaten them before down here, so they believe in themselves that they can win. It’s a privilege to come down here and play them.”
Camden County (10-2), the champion of powerhouse Region 1AAAAAA, might not feel the same way. Hillgrove’s defense forced three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception — and kept the Wildcats out of the end zone for much of the game.
Jaylan Reid had two sacks, and Quincy Nelson’s interception late in the second quarter led to Elijah Ironside’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Justin Denton with 20 seconds on the clock. That gave Hillgrove its first lead — one it would not relinquish — at 27-21.
Denton also weaved through defenders for a 78-yard punt return with 2:59 on the clock. It was all part of a 20-point second quarter for the Hawks, who went from a 21-7 deficit at the end of the first quarter to a 27-21 lead at halftime.
“We felt like, if the offense could put up some points, we knew we could stop them,” Hillgrove defensive end Bradley Chubb said. “We just kept fighting. They got 21 points on us early, but we didn’t get down. Coach just said to keep going at their run game and we did.
“It’s a six-hour bus ride down here, and all we heard before we came down was we couldn’t beat them, so it’s amazing to get it done.”
The turning point likely came early in the second period.
With Hillgrove trailing 21-7 after Camden County scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions, the Hawks faced third-and-24 from their own 28. Ironside lofted a deep pass to Emanuel Beal, who fought off his defender and waltzed the remaining 30 yards into the end zone to trim the deficit to a single score.
“I think that play was a big confidence-builder for Elijah,” Phil Ironside said. “It lifted him and the team. We continued to run the ball well after that. We threw well and played good defense. It was a good all-around effort.”
After Camden County’s Antonio Wimbush returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to the Hillgrove 26, the Wildcats had second-and-five from the 13 when Reid collected his first sack. A 5-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 26, but Bradley Bastable’s 43-yard field goal fell just short, keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard.
“The kid missed the field goal, and we were still in it,” Phil Ironside said. “Our kids just settled down from there. I’m really proud of them.”
Hillgrove opened the second half with a six-play, 52-yard drive that culminated with Sonny Harris’ halfback pass to Omar Black for a 17-yard touchdown.
Hillgrove’s defense limited Camden County, which entered the game averaging 33.7 points, to 24 yards and two first downs in the third quarter.
The Wildcats made one last attempt at finding the end zone, driving from their own 1 to the Hawks’ 14, but Hillgrove stopped Kalvarez Bessent inches short from picking up first down on fourth-and-5.
The turnover on downs gave Hillgrove the ball with 3:44 left to play. The Hawks collected one first down, forcing the Wildcats to use their timeouts, but Hillgrove was eventually forced to punt with 40 seconds left.
Ultimately, though, Warren Terry’s fumble recovery with 15 seconds on the clock sealed the victory for Hillgrove.
Richardre Bagley had 27 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown for Hillgrove. Black caught four passes for 30 yards and a score, Beal finished with two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown, and Denton had two catches for 41 yards and a score.
Harrison Poole led Camden County with 82 rushing yards and a touchdown. Wimbush ran for 18 yards and a score, and Ryan Johnson rushed for 79 yards.